Photo by Aaron Ricca.
KINGMAN – A Kingman Middle School eighth-grader who refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance and her mother allege the school’s principal and a teacher at the school who also serves as its athletic director were abusive to her.
Madison Smith, 14, and her mother, Shirley Carter, complained to the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona following the Sept. 12 incident, alleging math teacher and Athletic Director Joy Lightner and Principal Donald Burton acted inappropriately in their respective response to Smith’s decision to sit.
Lightner, said the girl, reportedly loudly ordered her to stand for the pledge. The pledge of allegiance is broadcast over speakers each school morning, along with a reading of announcements. The incident occurred in the school’s gymnasium.
Burton and Lightner adamantly deny the veracity of the allegations in what has largely become a four-way he said, she said situation.
The Right to Sit
The ACLU sent a three-page letter dated Oct. 17 and received Wednesday that was addressed to Burton and Kingman Unified School District Superintendent Roger Jacks.
ACLU Attorney Darrell Hill cited the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and widely supported legal precedent that makes it unlawful to compel people into involuntary displays of patriotism. He concluded the letter by essentially directing the district to inform “all teachers and administrators of the rights of their students to engage in First Amendment-protected activities.”
Smith told the Miner that Lightner, once the athletic director realized the girl wasn’t standing, yelled at her, saying students are required to stand for the pledge. Lightner reportedly told Smith that Lightner’s son was a veteran who fought for her right to stand for the flag.
Smith said she told Lightner that her son’s service ensured her the right to not stand. Lightner’s verbal assault allegedly continued until Smith left the gym in tears, she said. Smith phoned her mother, who immediately went to the school.
According to the ACLU’s Hill, the mother and daughter said that during the meeting with Burton and Lightner, Burton, pointing his finger at the girl, angrily expressed disgust with the recent protests against the national anthem that have taken place at televised sporting events and have spread to schools and elsewhere.
Smith’s mother reportedly told Burton he had no right to speak to the teen in an aggressive tone and both mother and daughter, she said, left the office with Burton still loudly denouncing the protest.
Carter contacted the ACLU the following day and received a response within 48 hours.
The mother said her daughter has had a political awakening this election cycle, and she acknowledges her input might have had a role in Smith’s decision to sit.
Carter said her daughter is a bright student who, admittedly with mom’s proffered insights, has taken a deeper interest in politics, civil rights and government in general. They specifically looked into the national anthem and pledge of allegiance protests and had watched videos online depicting students who were forced to stand for the pledge.
“It was complete brainwashing,” said Smith. “I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.”
“It was just like 20 little zombies in a classroom,” added her mother. “It had quite the effect on Madison.” Still, she wasn’t expecting her daughter to join the national protest.
“I had no idea she was going to go to school and refuse to stand,” Carter said.
“I had no idea I was going to do it, either, until the teachers told me we had to,” said Smith.
The Other Side
KUSD has a far different view of what occurred Sept. 12. Jacks received the letter via certified mail Wednesday. Burton and Lightner have read the letter and they adamantly disagree with the ACLU’s version – and they note the ACLU hasn’t asked for their side of the story.
“There are several untruths in the letter,” said Burton. “The statement (from the student and her mother) is totally false.”
“That letter is full of half-truths and out and out lies,” said Lightner. “I know what is true and what is not true.”
She would not go on record with details regarding most of her actions, but she did defend Burton, saying he did not conduct himself inappropriately when meeting with Carter and Smith.
In fact, Burton and Lightner said it was the other way around.
“The mother doesn’t mention how she used extremely inappropriate language as she went out,” Burton said. “I don’t know how she could hear me at all because I wasn’t screaming about anything.”
“They used quite a few expletives at Mr. Burton,” Lightner said. She added that Carter slammed Burton’s door and her rant drifted from the front office, through the hallway and out of the door in front of students and parents.
“I might’ve slipped one or two,” Mrs. Carter acknowledged. “I was pretty heated, especially when (Burton) started pointing and shaking his finger at my daughter. Nobody has a right to talk to my child that way.”
Burton told the Miner that each morning starts with a daily routine of announcements and the pledge of allegiance.
“They are a time to quietly listen and reflect upon the privileges of living in a country with individual freedoms,” he said. “KMS staff promotes the acceptance of individuality and diversity of all students, while providing opportunities for the entire school community.”
The letter was the ACLU’s first contact with KUSD, said Hill, and was sent to remind the district that students cannot be forced into displays of patriotism – which includes the right to salute the flag.
The law was settled 73 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. Hill cited the case in his letter to the district, and Jacks also mentioned the landmark case in his memo to district principals sent out Sept. 13, advising them of the district’s policy that prohibits interfering with free speech.
Hill in his letter asked that KUSD provide the ACLU with written assurances that students understand their constitutional rights.
“What we’re trying to convey to them is that they cannot force students to take part in the pledge,” said ACLU spokesman Steve Kilar. “We’d like to hear from them to know they understand that.”
Jacks sent out the Sept. 13 email to school principals, and another statement Thursday reminding them they cannot compel students to stand for or participate in the pledge.
“A student has the right to remain seated and silent without fear of any adverse actions,” Jacks told the Miner.
Jacks has forwarded the letter to district lawyers for review. A response to the ACLU should be ready within the next two weeks.
No Blowback at School
Smith returned to school immediately after the incident. She said she’s received no negative responses from other students. In fact, she said other students have joined her protest by sitting during the pledge. She also said certain teachers tell kids to stand for the pledge, but they don’t force them.
The eighth-grader wanted to press charges against Burton and the teacher for harassment, but her mother has no desire to go there.
“I don’t think we have grounds,” Carter said. “She (just) wants students to be aware and notified of their rights.”
Carter, 38, said she’s never thought about why people say the pledge.
“Have they ever explained why we say the pledge of allegiance?” she said. “No, but they tell us from 5 years old that we have to. It is 100 percent brainwashing. In this day in age, I can’t believe that all across America people are still taking a pledge to this flag and they have no idea why they’re doing it.”
Smith acknowledged she didn’t take into consideration how her actions might affect others.
“I understand some people have different views, but it’s my choice,” she said. “I’m going to respect myself more than I respect other people … I’m taking a stand by sitting.”